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.