Five days ago I got a little giddy with excitement over the one hundredth anniversary of Charlie Chaplin’s debut screen appearance. Today, February 7th 2014 marks another centenary; the anniversary of the first screen appearance of Chaplin’s defining character, the little fellow, his tramp. Released on this day a century ago, Kid Auto Races at Venice was Chaplin’s second film to be released but wasn’t the first film for which he had donned his famous costume. Shot a few days earlier but released two days later, Mabel’s Strange Predicament is technically the tramp’s first film. In that film though, the tramp is very much an also ran, part of a small cast of characters who cause a ruckus in a hotel. Here Chaplin stands alone, as he did through much of his film career.
Just eleven minutes long, though the version I own is seven, filming took place during a soap box derby race in Venice Beach, California. Chaplin plays a bystander, nestled in amongst the sizable crowd who stand respectfully at the side of the track. When the tramp notices a camera filming the event he becomes infatuated with it, making numerous attempts to get in front of it and generally cause a bit of trouble. This isn’t appreciated by the director who bats the tramp away. Here in his debut film, the tramp is very much that. He’s a mischievous vagrant with no better place to be. His cruel streak isn’t really evident but neither is the kindness of his later feature films. He’s a character whose personality is very much still being formed. He’s not bad and not really mean, he’s just annoying. The tramp remained an annoyance for many of his early appearances, taking some time to develop into the more sincere and sympathetic character he would later become.
Although his personality was still in flux, his look remained almost unchanged from this film until his final appearance in Modern Times over two decades later. Chaplin stated in his autobiography that:
"I had no idea what makeup to put on. I did not like my get-up as the press reporter [in Making a Living]. However on the way to the wardrobe I thought I would dress in baggy pants, big shoes, a cane and a derby hat. I wanted everything to be a contradiction: the pants baggy, the coat tight, the hat small and the shoes large. I was undecided whether to look old or young, but remembering Sennett had expected me to be a much older man, I added a small moustache, which I reasoned, would add age without hiding my expression.
I had no idea of the character. But the moment I was dressed, the clothes and the makeup made me feel the person he was. I began to know him, and by the time I walked on stage he was fully born."
Although his story has been challenged in more recent times, he isn’t wrong about the results. The character is fully born just seconds into this film. The famous moustache is fixed in place, the feet pointing outwards at right angles and bowler hat tilted slightly to one side.
Although this film is of interest to people like myself and it has obvious historical importance, as a comedy it fails miserably. Generally Chaplin’s comedies were funny when released and funny now but in this instance, I don’t know what people were laughing at. The film is insanely repetitive and despite a little bit of comedy business in front of the camera, Chaplin does little to amuse. It might be funny to see someone get in the way of a camera once or twice but the joke is repeated so many times that you lose all sense that it could ever have been funny. Had the film been directed by Chaplin and been made a year or two later, he may have used the Venice sequence as one part of a larger film, having a bit of fun annoying a cameraman before being chased away to go and cause mischief elsewhere. Instead the film just goes on and on with the same joke before finally ending on a nice close-up shot of the tramp having his face contorted as he’s escorted away.
There is some interest to be found in the breaking of the forth wall as a second camera is used to show us what is happening in front of the original one. In these scenes we get a spectator’s eye view of the nuisance tramp as he battles with an enraged director, played by Henry Lehrman, the film’s actual director. It also gives us a rare chance to see an early movie camera being cranked, evoking memories of the immeasurably fantastic Man with a Movie Camera. Even this though does little to break the tedium and repetitive nature of the humour.
Had this short film featured any one of Mack Sennett’s other actors, there is little chance it would have survived and would almost certainly be forgotten by now. Because it features the tramp’s first performance and because it’s a Chaplin film, it’s been preserved. As a film, it doesn’t deserve to be but as a historical artefact it most certainly does. It’s a terrible opening page of a magnificent novel.
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