Wednesday 19 February 2014

A Thief Catcher (1914)

Director: Henry Lehrman
Stars: Ford Sterling, Mack Swain and Edgar Kennedy
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.
A Thief Catcher is possibly the oddest entry in Charlie Chaplin's filmography and writing this review will feel strange, given that I've only seen the first half. At least we know that it exists now and that it does indeed feature Chaplin, in an unusual role as a Keystone Kop. Until 2010, we didn't know that, because the title had been discounted by the standard biographers, starting with the pioneering research of H D Waley, the Technical Director of the British Film Institute, which was published in 1938. The suggestion is that he conflated this title, A Thief Catcher, with The Thief Catcher, the reported title for a reissue of Her Friend the Bandit, another film Chaplin made at Keystone Studios in 1914. This is understandable, given that Chaplin made so many films that year and they were widely reissued, often under different names. It's especially understandable here, as Her Friend the Bandit is the only one of Chaplin films to be confirmed as lost. If A Thief Catcher was also lost, there was no way to prove it wasn't the same one.

It was rediscovered in 2009 by Paul Gierucki, a film historian who is currently the head of restorations for CineMuseum, LLC, which focuses on silent comedy. They've restored and released much from this era, including highly regarded box sets like The Forgotten Films of Roscoe 'Fatty' Arbuckle, which I can personally vouch for, and Industrial Strength Keaton. They're currently finishing up The Mack Sennett Collection, which is slated for a June release by Flicker Alley; it will include the complete version of A Thief Catcher. Currently, we can only see the first six minutes on the Chaplin at Keystone box set, also from Flicker Alley, which contains the restored versions of these films and has thus been important to me in writing my reviews of them to celebrate Chaplin's debut year a century on. I won't complain, as six minutes, or just over half the film, is more than anyone knew existed for the longest time. It's very possible that, until Gierucki's rediscovery, nobody had seen it since the end of World War I.

He found it in 2009 at an antiques show in Michigan among a stack of old 16mm reels. This particular can was labelled Keystone but not Chaplin, so he left it for a few weeks before screening it. When he did, he knew what he had, even though the print is actually of His Regular Job, a reissue by the Tower Film Company of A Thief Catcher. This is for two reasons: the quality was decent and, as we can now see, there's just no mistaking this particular Keystone Kop for anyone else. This isn't Chaplin playing a Keystone Kop, it's Chaplin playing the Little Tramp playing a Keystone Kop. Presumably he was free for a day and put on that famous uniform to help out when Keystone was short of actors, a theory backed up by the fact that one of the other Kops is played by Bill Hauber, who had appeared earlier in the film in a short second role as one of the crooks. If Keystone were recycling their crooks into cops within the very same picture, they were surely short on hands that day.
Of course, Chaplin isn't the star of this film. He was still new to Keystone Studios and to the big screen generally. He'd made three pictures before this one, the first of which had been completed and shipped on 14th January, 1914. A Thief Catcher reached screens on 19th February, only ten days after his third and still less than two and a half weeks after his first. All told, he'd be on screen in five different movies in February 1914 alone. The world was quickly discovering who he was and what he could do, but they needed time to do so and there had been precious little of it thus far. In a twist of irony, the star who he supports here is Ford Sterling, whose decision to leave Keystone to start his own company is what led Mack Sennett, the studio boss, to hire Chaplin to begin with. Sterling was a huge star for Keystone who, like Mabel Normand, had followed Sennett to California when he left Biograph Studios, and became a key player; he was the original leader of the Keystone Kops, playing Chief Teeheezel.

As can be seen here, Sterling belongs firmly to the old school tradition of silent comedy, full of gestures and flamboyance to compensate for the lack of speech. Surprisingly, for anyone who has seen him in a silent movie, he successfully made the transition to sound films and continued to make them until 1937. For instance, he played the White King in the star studded 1933 version of Alice in Wonderland and he even returned to Keystone to reprise the Chief of Police in 1935's Keystone Hotel, four years before his death. He plays another man with a badge here, albeit a cowardly rural sheriff rather than a bumbling Keystone Kop. He apparently stumbled upon a trio of what the intertitles call 'yeggmen', an antiquated term for safecrackers, witnessing two of them disposing of the third over a cliff. This scene is easily the best shot of the first six minutes, because it looks completely fake until movement shows us that it's as real as any other location in the picture. It's a neat bit of illusion.

Being a cowardly soul, he hightails it out of there, pausing only to snap a quick picture of the murder, and the yeggmen pursue him. After a few capably shot but entirely predictable slapstick gags, he finds himself out in the sticks where, in a quintessentially slapstick slice of conveniently bad judgement, he hides out in the yeggmen's own hideout. If you've ever seen a silent comedy, you can imagine where this setup will take us and you won't be far wrong. The positive side of it comes through what they do. Sterling is so nervous at one point that his fingers lock together, as if they were in Chinese handcuffs, and there's a brutal scene where the two yeggmen toss a coin to see which of them will be the one to shoot their captive. This is literally hair raising for Sterling. The negative side is in how they do it, as all three of them pantomime far more than they act. This was silent movie tradition, because if characters got their point over with gestures, intertitles weren't needed and the action sped up considerably.
Sterling was capable enough at this to have become one of Keystone's biggest stars. The yeggmen he reacts to are played by other experienced Keystone hands, Mack Swain and Edgar Kennedy, and they knew exactly how to do this too. All three of them were good at it, which is why Sennett gave them the opportunity here. The catch is that, to our jaded eyes with a hundred years of hindsight, they're dated beyond belief. It isn't the lack of sound, as many recent silent movies have demonstrated, it's in their chewing of scenery with reckless abandon. Ironically, the movement away from that sort of overacting came with the arrival on screen of Charlie Chaplin and we see that paradigm shift in microcosm as an uncredited but highly recognisable Keystone Kop arrives towards the six minute mark. It's impossible not to compare his subtle and controlled movements with their flailing around, even in what is merely thirty seconds or so of screen time. Apparently he gets about three minutes in the complete film.

I'm looking forward to seeing what else he gets up to in this picture. Given that he doesn't arrive until the halfway mark, he's clearly not going to be able to steal the entire movie in the way that he did in Mabel's Strange Predicament, but the little he does in the first six minutes is easily enough to suggest that he may well ruthlessly dominate the second half. I'll find out soon enough, when Flicker Alley put out the complete short in The Mack Sennett Collection. I'm also looking forward to seeing how soon his fellow actors start to follow his lead with this new style of acting. He began 1914 as the new kid on the block, supporting others in their pictures, but he gradually took on more control. He began to write and direct his films, until they were closer to what he wanted them to be. He directed only one of his first twenty, and partially a second, but he directed all fifteen of his shorts after that, relinquishing control back to Sennett only for his last picture of the year, the feature film, Tillie's Punctured Romance.

At some point during 1914 he became a star and it certainly wasn't at the end, when he left Keystone for a much higher salary at the Essanay Film Manufacturing Company. Watching these films afresh, in newly restored editions, it's easy to see why; even in these earliest titles he's so far ahead of his peers that it's almost surreal. What I wonder is when they realised that; it certainly wasn't during the filming of his first picture, Making a Living, because everybody involved thought it was a disaster. Watching afresh, it ought to have been during Mabel's Strange Predicament, because he completely dominated, but it's hard to see that without hindsight. Surely the true moment in which he took over will be in the film where his fellow actors start to slow down, to cease pantomiming everything so flamboyantly, to follow his lead. He made 32 more pictures in 1914 and I'll be reviewing them all on the anniversary of their original releases, so I'll be keenly searching for that moment. Watch this space.

Important Sources:
Associated Press - Long-lost Charlie Chaplin film, found in Michigan, to debut at Virginia festival (2010)
Jeffrey Vance - Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema (2003)
Brent Evan Walker - Charlie Chaplin in A Thief Catcher, and other rarities at Slapsticon (2010)

The first six minutes of A Thief Catcher can be watched for free at YouTube, though the quality is terrible. It's highly recommended that you pick up the Flicker Alley box set, Chaplin at Keystone, or wait for The Mack Sennett Collection, hopefully due in June.

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