Looking for Mabel Normand

Madcap Mabel Normand

Update November 15, 2016


Rod Wallberg, identified “the motorcycle in question is a 1911 Flyingmerkel” Rod posted this in the GUESTBOOK

October 28, 2015

…and a little more on the post on Mabel and motorcycles from Nicholas Pinhey. “The young lady in the photo is Iris Shellard and the photo was taken in Canada in 1911 or 1912 (per the other photos in the album).  He has not been able to identify the manufacturer of the motorcycle (the photo is too fuzzy). It's a neat v-twin with the "tiller" handlebars typical of the era.


Nick is a vintage motorcycle buff.  He knows quite a bit about vintage motorcycles as he restore selected models, but his  knowledge of antique motorcycles is not as good.  Nick is   a fan of the old Indian motorcycles.   


At any rate, the photo of Iris on her boyfriend's motorcycle (1911/1912) – shows her as quite the adventurer, a real fire-cracker.  The motorcycle she is sitting on is interesting as it is set up with a "skirt guard" on the rear wheel and a foot rest so the proper Edwardian English lady passenger can ride side-saddle and not get her skirts caught in the spokes!  So civilized!  One still sees these set-ups in India where they are now referred to as "Sari guards".

updated October 23, 2015

updated Sept. 18, 2012

Was Mabel Normand involved with Motorcycles?


Marilyn Slater


November 21, 2008

When going though the various archives searching for Mabel with – motorcycles, I didn’t except to find much.  A few days before I had received an email forwarded from Cristine Sommer-Simmons, an author who was researching women and motorcycle and had a few questions about Mabel.   

During the summer I had posted a couple of pictures of Mabel in Mabel’s Log at Looking-for-Mabel taken on the Sam Goldwyn Studio lot in Culver City around 1920, she is posing with an Indian motorcycle.  Since I have only seen 3 of the 17 or so films she made for Goldwyn, these maybe a tie-in with a particular film but from the script summaries available it is not apparent if the publicity photos were part of a specific promotion.  The email noted that there were pictures of Mabel in a Motorcycle magazine.  My first reaction was it was the ones in Mabel’s Log, which it turned out, they were.   The pictures of Mabel Normand and her Indian were found in a very rare and rather unique motorcycle magazine called “Motorcycling and Bicycling”, issue dated March 14, 1920. And in an even rarer and more expensive publication titled “Motorcycle and Bicycle Illustrated”, issue July 22, 1920 was found the image of Mabel setting adjusting her ‘butterfly’.


However while I was going though images of Mabel with bikes, I took a look, at the still photos from the 1914 – Mabel at the Wheel”. It has usually been studied for the terrific road race sequence shown in the film. In John Bengtson’s book, “Silent Traces”, he shows the area ‘now and then’ there the film was made and Harold Osmer in his book “Where They Raced”, writes of the Santa Monica area road races of 1914.   

The paring of Charlie Chaplin and Mabel Normand and the behind the camera power struggle was also a frequent topic discussed when writing about this film.  In a wonderful essay found in the “Mabel Normand Source Book” by William Thomas Sherman, he writes that…..

"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."



There are a couple of iconic photos of Mabel at the races.




In the Motography, May 20, 1916 a story about Mabel has the following quote…Never again will “Keystone” Mabel Normand go riding on a motorcycle with Charlie Chaplin, who didn't know how to manage the thing. This must be a reference to “Mabel at the Wheel.”


As long as my head was turned towards Mabel and bik es, the question comes to mind, "Was she identified as a motorcycle ‘girl’ during her lifetime?”  Hence a ‘google search … William M. Drew’s “Speeding Sweetheart” was my first stop.  William is the most knowledgeable film historian that I know on the subject of early actresses, he researched the subject pointing out silent actresses love of driving in the “days of yore.”  To read of the motoring exploits of the silent film actresses that found pleasure ‘at the wheel’  the Chapters of Speeding Sweethearts can be found on the web it lists a number of film stars that loved speed, and has some great stories but nothing about Mabel and motorcycles, cars yes but motorcycles no. 

Mack Sennett in both of his autobiographies, “Father Goose” and “King of Comedy” writes of Mabel love of fast cars and speed in general.  There is a lovely story told by Mack Sennett to Cameron Shipp in the book “King of Comedy” about Mack buying a red Fiat for $6,000 (that was a lot of money in the teens).  Mabel “barrowed” it.

 …”Miss Normand, who couldn’t drive anything more complicated than a small nail, clapped her big brown eyes on the new Fiat and decided I was the boy next door after all.

‘Can I drive it, Mack? Please! You know me, I’m as careful as an old lady, and when I hit people I practically almost never maim them permanently, Mack, I’ve just got to drive that big automobile.’

I couldn’t think of anything prettier than Mabel Normand behind the wheel of that car”….Mabel returned four hours later, her big eyes were as innocent as a small girl’s and she came over and sat on my desk and swung her legs and rumpled my hair and grinned at me…’Mack, the damedest thing, You do have an exceptional talent for picking bum automobiles.  That Fiat’s insides just weren’t any good and I hadn’t got even to Santa Monica before there was some terrible egg-beating noises and some weak kind of put-put-puts and the car stopped’… She was the most gorgeous thing you ever saw and what did I need with a Fiat?”

 In 1914, there is even a story of Marie Dressler and Mabel Normand setting up a race between their cars but what about motorcycles?

Movie Pictorial, June 13, 1914, The Rivals.  …“Ever since the day when Marie Dressler gave up being a queen of the stage to become a Keystone comedienne, she and Mabel Normand, the Queen of the Movies, have been bitter rivals...” 

 This rivalries running to motor cars, Mabel’s Stutz Bearcat racing against Marie’s Fiat with a scheduled demonstration at Ascot Park in Santa Monica”. 

Of course, they liked each other and the race never took place but now back to the fact that we know about  Mabel at the Wheel”, from another wonderful book written by another friend, Thierry Georges Mathieu, “La Naissance De Charlot, Keystone – 1914” Revue #6, according to the material that Thierry has amassed the film was released April 18, 1914.  (He writes in French, and I don’t read French without a dictionary.)

It was filmed between February 26 – March 16.  Mack sent the negative from Keystone in Edendale, California on March 31.  The New York office got the negative on April 6 and it was in the theaters on April 18, 1914, Wow these Keystone Comedies were made fast!  Directed by both Mabel Normand and Mack Sennett, the working title was “Racing Queen”; it was first released under the title “Mabel at the Wheel” and than released as “His Dare Devil Queen” and even later “A Hot Finish.”   The race tract used was the Vanderbilt jr. Cup Race in Santa Monica and the street scenes of Mabel and Charlie on the motorcycle was done in Edendale above Sunset Blvd.  

More about the film?  In 1914,   the production company was Keystone Film Company a division of New York Motion Picture Company, the producer was Mack Sennett and the writer of the story (such as it was) was Mabel and Frank Williams was the cameraman.  Mabel did the directing for the most part.  And the cast: Mabel Normand (Mabel), Charles Chaplin (Villain), Harry McCoy (Mabel’s boyfriend), Chester Conklin (Mabel’s father) and Mack Sennett (a rube), William C. Hauber (Mabel’s co-driver), Joe Bordeaux (shady character), Fred Mace (another shady character) William A. Seiter (henchman), in the stands the spectators included, Alice Davenport, Mack Swain, Charley Chase, Edgar Kennedy, Minta Durfee, Rhea Mitchell, Bobby Dunn and a whole bunch of Keystone players, not named and unverified. 

The story?  Charlie is a villain and Mabel is a hero.  Charlie plays the villain in a frocked long coat and even a beard; he had not yet developed his trump costume. Mabel’s boyfriend was Harry, the racecar driver, who doesn’t want Mabel to drive his car to the races and they argue, she gets out of the car. Charlie comes along on his motorcycle and Mabel wants to make Harry jealous and Charlie wants Mabel for himself.  He persuades Mabel to ride on the back of his motorcycle but she falls off right into a mud puddle! Charlie rides off without her; he doesn’t notice that he lost her.  But wait! Charlie kidnaps Harry to keep him from competing in a race but have no fear; our Mabel drives the car herself with Charlie trying to sabotage the race with spraying oil the track and throwing bombs at the cars.  He ends up blowing himself up with one of his bombs and of course, Mabel wins both the race and Harry, that’a girl!

This comedy runs only about 20 to 30 minutes depending on what speed the 1900 feet of film was projected.  There are copies of this film at the Library of Congress, British Film Institute, Cinematheque Quebecoise and a number of other places, there are some VHS compellation tapes of Chaplin comedies that include the comedy short but at this point, I don’t think Malnor Films is offering any of the Chaplin films.   

As Charlie became a rocketing star his career rose into the sky without limits, he became the public’s most requested comendian; the reissuing of his Keystone comedies was a guaranteed draw for theater owners.  At first “Mabel at the Wheel” was a Mabel Normand comedy with Charlie Chaplin but it wasn’t long before the advertising was a Chaplin Comedy (sometimes, Mabel wasn’t even mentioned in the display ads) the name of the film changed but the film didn’t.

I check any film advertising for a comedy called “His Dare Devil Queen, Hot Finish, Mabel at the Wheel” and I found what I was looking for June 19, 1918 at the Majestic Theatre in the Reno Evening Gazette … “and Charlie Chaplin, Mabel Normand in “His Daredevil Queen” …. A RIOTOUS MOTOR CYCLE COMEDY…


In 1918, Mabel was identified as a motor cycle “girl.”

Therefore, when Mabel was under contract with Sam Goldwyn and was working in Culver City and she is pictured with the fabulous Indian this was not a new experience she looks very comfortable with the motorcycle. 

Back when the 2 pictures were posted in Mabel’s Log, Gregory Golski, and a lifelong fan of Mabel’s work provide information on the Indian.  He knew it was a V-twin 42 degree side-valve, and that these were made by Indian for many years; the Scout or Chief were easily eliminated- they were a totally different engine design with the chain drive on the opposite side, and different fender brackets.  He thinks that Mabel’s bike was rather unique-  and he identified the bike in “Mabel at the Wheel” as a dual seat Indian.

The bike at Goldwyn Studio with dear sweet Mabel was the 'Cadillac of motorcycles' - Gregory writes that this particular Indian motorcycle shown is a special order 1920 Power Plus V-Twin 61 cid, 1000cc (=1 litre), a bear of a bike capable of 60mph, equipped with all the bells and whistles. Powerful yet incredibly attractive, it was the epitome of sex appeal on wheels. It had electric lighting when many were still using acetylene, it had dual headlights- when most came with a single central, chrome bezels on the speedometer and brackets- when the standard would have been black, and even a chrome wooden-handled tire pump strapped to the front fork just in case of a blow-out! 

The color of the bike is a fire engine red with gold pinstripe.  Did you notice that Mabel is dressed to compliment; her 'Tam', tie, belt, and knickers (as well as her lipstick) are deep red to match, while her jacket and gloves are shades of gold or tan. Her burnished leather boots even match the saddle seat or that is what Gregory thinks! A photo of the world's foremost funniest, prettiest, most durable, (fastest?) movie comiedienne standing one-legged, color-coded (even in black, grey & white) on the handsomest, most durable, fastest, (yet prettiest) motorcycle was the perfect combination! 

Gregory real knows a lot about this motorcycle, (manufactured in Springfield, Massachusetts) as equipped, would have been available to only an exclusive segment of the population, most too male buyers. Gleaming chrome trim and white wall tires, mounted by a new 1000cc power plant -these fancy sleek touring models would have been hard to pass up by the rich playboys of Newport and the Hamptons. Smooth 'macadam' paved roads had been a reality since the 1800's -few were known in rural areas, yet they were seen in the more wealthily populated areas of the Northeast (it should be noted that the country's first 'bituminous' asphalt pavement road was laid in Rhode Island). 

The well-equipped cycle shown in the pictures of Mabel at Goldwyn Studio has all the gleam, but no whitewall roadster tires. This has standard racing tires, which are blackwall; better suited for the as yet unpaved roads of most of Hollywood. Furthermore, although the bike is equipped with every option, as pictured, it could only have been used for daytime riding.

As part of its special electric package, this bike is equipped with a Splitdorf magneto & generator, which are both visible, yet inoperable as shown. The rubber drive belt is missing, which would render the power options, electric horn and lights useless. If you look to the immediate left in the photo of Mabel the one where she is setting by the Indian, check by her forearm, you can see the empty black circular crank pulley used to power the generator; the generator's empty silver pulley can be seen at a 45 degree angle upward and to the left, about a foot directly left of Mabel's hand.

Gregory is sure that the bike otherwise looks mechanically sound and in perfect running condition.  Sadly, there is not way to know if it were owned by Mabel probably not but she was familiar with the bike from her days from her time at Keystone as the Keystone Cops chase scenes needed to be easy to maneuvere - of all motorcycles, only the Indian had the throttle on the left, enabling even the most inexperienced rider to shoot a blank pistol with his right hand). Yet could just as easily, and more likely be a cycle used exclusively for the movies; generator belt removed for speed, lights just for show, this motorcycle may have been just a prop used that day... 

Gregory is right even if it's not really her bike -she owns it.  As he suggests “take one more look at that photo where she's acting like she's adjusting her engine. See that knob she's got her hand on? That's the adjustment for the main carburetor valve- it's called the butterfly. Mabel Normand touching her butterfly - perfect. 'Click'. No wonder they say a picture says a thousand words...”




another note


BTW; you mention chrome a few times in your description of the Indian Powerplus, it was actually nickle plating, which is very beautiful. Chrome plating wasn't available until the later twenties. Also, the dual 'headlights' on her Indian are accessory spotlights, the real Indian headlight is missing for some reason. -Ted (January 24, 2009)

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added Sept 18, 2012