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Friday, 7 February 2014

Kid Auto Races at Venice, Cal (1914)

Director: Henry Lehrman
Stars: Charles Chaplin, Henry Lehrman and Frank D Williams
I'm reviewing each of the 36 films Charlie Chaplin made for Keystone Studios in 1914 on the centennial of their original releases. Here's an index to these reviews.
Almost a decade ago, when I watched most of the films Charlie Chaplin made for Keystone in 1914, this seemed the weakest of them all. On the face of it, there's nothing here: just a tramp loitering in front of a camera to annoy the people behind it as they shoot the auto races of the title. There's no story, little more than an initial idea that doesn't progress any further as the film runs on. We might be forgiven, as many of the unwitting extras were, for assuming that the tramp is the only character, though of course the film director and cameraman he annoys are characters too. There's neither a leading lady nor any other supporting roles, at least not scripted ones played by actors. What's more, there aren't even the things that we might safely expect to see in a Keystone picture: no Keystone Kops, no pies in the face, not even a single chase. The most recognisable moment is that old slapstick standard, the kick in the ass; Chaplin finds himself on the receiving end of one and naturally hits the dirt.

Without context, the movie feels more valuable for the auto races going on in the background that had obviously started before this guerrilla shoot began and continued after it ended. We see children racing in what seems to be some sort of soapbox derby event with little apparent structure. It was really the Junior Vanderbilt Cup, a children's version of the first major auto racing event in the US which had been founded in 1904 in New York. It stayed there until 1911, when it started moving around the country. In 1914 it found its way to the west coast for the first time, to be held in Santa Monica, CA, the only city to ever sponsor an equivalent race for children, which took place a mere couple of miles down the coast on the boardwalk at Venice Beach. Given that this six minute film may have only taken forty five to shoot, it's surprising that director Henry Lehrman managed to stage three different setups: one on a straight, another on a bend and the third just below a ramp used to launch the engineless vehicles.

However, a little context provides a rather different understanding. A century on, nobody has heard of the Junior Vanderbilt Cup, which appears to have been held just this once, and, if any have heard of it without the Junior prefix, it's probably because it was rebooted in CART racing in the late nineties for a decade or so. However Charlie Chaplin is lauded as the inventor of modern film comedy and one of the funniest actors to ever be seen in movies. Of course, if you went back in time to Sunday, 11th January, 1914, and told that to someone in the masses crowding the boardwalk at Venice Beach, they wouldn't believe you. Clearly the throngs are here to watch the races and they initially appear to be as annoyed by the Little Tramp's antics as those whose camera he keeps obscuring. In fact, if we look at this movie from the perspective of a reality, a sort of early documentary that merely captured a slice of life as the camera ran, he's just as annoying to us. Yet this was, in so many ways, the beginning.
Technically, Chaplin made his screen debut five days earlier with Making a Living, but in that picture he played a more traditional villain in a more traditional story; here he plays the Little Tramp, the character that would make him world famous. He played other characters in other films, but in almost every one he made until The Great Dictator, he's either the Little Tramp or a close approximation. Hilariously, the most famous character in the world of silent film was an afterthought. Mack Sennett, the man who ran Keystone Studios, wanted Chaplin to put on some sort of comic turn in a Mabel Normand picture called Mabel's Strange Predicament; perhaps he could walk into a hotel lobby and create some laughs. His list of instructions to Chaplin were absurdly minimal: 'Put on a comedy makeup. Anything will do.' Chaplin apparently thought up his costume on the way to wardrobe. 'I wanted everything to be a contradiction,' he wrote in his autobiography, 'the pants baggy, the coat tight, the hat small and the shoes large.'

Because Sennett had apparently been surprised at his youth when Chaplin arrived at the studio, he felt he should add another little detail, which would soon become one of his most memorable attributes and which may well appear his most defining feature today. 'I added a small moustache,' he wrote, '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 make-up made me feel the person he was. I began to know him, and by the time I walked on to the stage he was fully born.' Certainly this most famous character of screen comedy was an inspired creation, but it wasn't entirely original. It was influenced by many generations of comedians who played tramps or clowns on the music hall stage. When he first stood in front of the camera, in Mabel's Strange Predicament, he's a variation on characters Chaplin had portrayed himself on stage for Fred Karno's London Comedians. Yet this film creation was somehow something more.

Clowns come and go. Tramps come and go. The genius of what Chaplin created on the fly is the sort of genius that isn't often seen, the contradictions he aimed at being definitive ones that others would aim to learn from or reinvent, yet nobody has quite matched this character in a century. From the waist up, he struggles not to burst. His coat is clearly more than a few sizes too small for him but he buttons it up anyway. His hat perches precariously on top of his head as if he's hoping it'll stretch to fit; of course he loses it often in his films. Even his famous toothbrush moustache appears too small for his face, merely another contradiction to film audiences in 1914, even if it's always going to be a reminder of Adolf Hitler to us. It's worth noting that Hitler was only 24 when this picture was released and it would be five more years before he would join what would become the Nazi party. Hitler appropriated Chaplin's moustache, not the other way around, which, of course, made The Great Dictator even more delightful.
Mabel's Strange Predicament was a regular one reel comedy, like Making a Living. One reel in 1914 was a thousand feet of film, which could fit between ten and twelve minutes of footage. Unlike those movies, Kid Auto Races at Venice, Cal was a split reel film, a shorter picture that shared a reel with another film, in this instance an educational short called Olives and Their Oil. Partly because of its shorter length and mostly because it was such a quick shoot even by the standards of Keystone Studios, it was completed and shipped before Mabel's Strange Predicament, which means that the public saw it first and it would go down in history as the first appearance of the Little Tramp. The two films served as a one two punch for audiences over a single weekend, as Kid Auto Races at Venice, Cal arrived on Friday, 2nd February, while the more substantial Mabel's Strange Predicament quickly followed up a mere two days later on Monday the 9th, still only a week after Making a Living. Charlie Chaplin had emphatically arrived.

Contemporary reviews were positive. The Bioscope reviewer talked of 'sensational happenings' but The Cinema was effusive with its praise. 'Kid Auto Races struck us as about the funniest film we have ever seen,' it said, adding that 'Chaplin is a born screen comedian; he does things we have not seen done on the screen before.' I don't know when this was written, but it must be more recent than the other as the actor is called out by name, impossible to do when Keystone didn't credit them; in the Bioscope review, he was simply referred to as 'the funny man'. It's difficult to understand this praise today, though it is a little easier if we watch the newly restored version released by Flicker Alley. Restored at the British Film Institute's National Archive in London from two nitrate prints, it shows us far more than we could see in the print that has circulated for years. Most importantly, we can see facial expressions, which we soon realise are massively important, both on the Little Tramp himself and on the people watching him.

It could be argued that the first time audiences saw Chaplin as the Little Tramp was not when Kid Auto Races in Venice, Cal hit theatre screens but as the film was being shot. This timely restoration allows us to realise that initially they had precisely no idea who he was or what he was doing. Some keep an eye on 'the funny man' but more watch the races which, of course, they'd come to see. As they realise that those races were not the only thing unfolding on the boardwalk, more start to watch Chaplin until, to a surprising proportion of the crowd, he becomes their focus and the cars are just an afterthought. Their faces clearly change too. Initially, they're bemused, as they attempt to figure out what's going on. The camera shooting the camera shooting Chaplin explains that they're on the set of a movie, playing out guerrilla style against a real event. The shoot was not a long one but by the end of it, the crowds are laughing; the Little Tramp has won them over with antics that are funnier now we can read his face.
Make no mistake, this is still weak stuff but it is, at least, a lot better when we can see faces. Instead of trying to figure out what sort of cars the kids are driving or why the cops vaguely attempt to keep the crowd from spreading onto the track but ignore the dogs that wander around as if they own the place, as we do in the regular print that's been issued on cheap videos and DVDs for decades, we see what we are supposed to: Charlie Chaplin as the Little Tramp. As in Making a Living, he's dominant, but director Henry Lehrman edited out his best footage from that film 'because, as he put it, he thought I knew too much.' Here, he couldn't edit Chaplin because Chaplin was all there was. Certainly, now that we're able to see, we don't pay attention to Lehrman, directing himself as the director who the tramp annoys, and we don't care about Frank D Williams, his cameraman. We're watching Chaplin finding his lovable rogue character. It really is still early days but the seeds are clearly there and they didn't take long to sprout.

Important Sources:
Charlie Chaplin - My Autobiography (1964)
Gerald McDonald, Michael Conway & Mark Ricci - The Complete Films of Charlie Chaplin (1988)
Jeffrey Vance - Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema (2003)

Kid Auto Races at Venice, Cal can be watched for free at YouTube or downloaded in a number of formats from the Internet Archive.

To see the restored versions of all 36 of Chaplin's Keystone films in all their glory (if we count the first half of A Thief Catcher, previously thought lost), it's highly recommended that you pick up the Flicker Alley box set, Chaplin at Keystone.

1 comment:

Rob said...

I'd give this at least a 4 and rate it higher than most of the Keystones. Sure there's a threadbare plot, but the plots in any of the Keystones are more contrived than inspired. I enjoy what Chaplin does from a pure movement perspective as much as anything else, and here you get more of that pure movement aspect than in most of his early films. Plus in many of his early films he acts pretty unsympathetically and that is less the acse here. He's clearly irking the camera man, but we don't feel any real affinity for the camera man so it doesn't bother the viewer.