Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Lost Charlie Chaplin film discovered in Michigan antique sale

Film historian and biographer Scott Eyman, writing in the Palm Beach Post, reports that a lost early short — with an appearance by Charlie Chaplin in a Keystone Kops iteration of his budding Little Tramp guise — has been found in one of those unlikely places where Lost Arks have a tendency to turn up:
The 16mm print was found by historian and collector Paul Gierucki at an antiques show in Michigan. Thinking it was just another old Keystone comedy, he didn't look at it for a while. He finally got around to it in early March and quickly realized what he had.
Released by Mutual Film Corporation in February 1914, the 10-minute one-reeler titled A Thief Catcher has long been considered lost forever, along with a sickeningly high percentage (roughly 50% to 80% depending on who you ask) of films from the pre-sound era. It's one of about 35 films that Chaplin, then only 24, appeared in throughout 1914, during his apprenticeship with Mack Sennett and Sennett's Keystone company of players.

As the Palm Beach Post article states, Chaplin was still mostly unknown at this point and isn't the star of the film, which features Keystone Kops comedy stars Ford Sterling, Mack Swain, and Edgar Kennedy (all welcome finds as well). Chaplin's extended cameo totals two to three minutes of footage, but it is unmistakably him.

Filmed the preceding January (about a month after Chaplin first arrived at the Keystone studio in Edendale, California), A Thief Catcher premiered in 1914 on February 19. His first movie, Making a Living, had been released just two weeks earlier on February 2. In between those two, movie-goers witnessed one of the most auspicious debuts in cinema history: the February 7 release of Kid Auto Races at Venice, the Keystone short that marked the first public screen appearance of Chaplin's now-iconic Little Tramp character.

While A Thief Catcher offers us Chaplin still discovering his creative voice, by the end of 1914 his films for Mack Sennett and Keystone had made him an international star. With rising popularity came his demands for an equally rising salary and creative control, demands met by a new studio, Essanay, and he started the next phase of his career there in January 1915. Chaplin's ascendancy as the world's most famous movie-maker had already begun.

Unlike too many news squibs about specialized topics (ask me to grouse about science reporting sometime), Scott Eyman's is written by someone who knows the subject and uses his sources well, providing context and meaning as well as bullet-point factoids.
"It's either his second moustache picture or his first," says [film collector] Richard Roberts. "It cements the concept that he had the character before he came to Keystone and didn't slap it together on the way to the shooting stage one day. Even when he's doing a minor part he's doing that character. It's a new brick in the Chaplin biography. And this opens up the door to other unknown Chaplin appearances at Keystone."
I dug around my own library for further info. Glenn Mitchell, in his The Chaplin Encyclopedia, has a substantial section on Chaplin's Keystone period. In it Mitchell notes a list of Chaplin's Keystone films printed in Sight & Sound in 1938 and compiled by H.D. Waley, then Technical Director of the British Film Institute. Waley's list included, says Mitchell, "an erroneous title deleted from subsequent lists, Ford Sterling's A Thief Catcher."

In David Robinson's definitive biography, Chaplin, we find that more than 50 years after Chaplin's stint with Keystone...
"... Chaplin told an interviewer that he had actually played bit roles as a Kop in Keystone films, though so far none of these appearances has been identified."
Looks as though A Thief Catcher changes that. Here's hoping others soon come to light as well.

What I wouldn't give to be in Rosslyn, Va. on July 17 to attend Slapstickon for A Thief Catcher's return to a flickering screen and smiling audiences.