Registering the Registry 2020: Kid Auto Races at Venice (1914)
Welcome back to Registering the Registry, where we consider and review the films inducted into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry by merit of their cultural, historical, and aesthetic qualities! Continuing on with the class of 2020, we mosey on over to Keystone Studios to watch one of Charlie Chaplin’s earliest films, Kid Auto Races at Venice, and see what we can’t learn about the first steps in developing his Little Tramp. Why dally further? Let’s get to it!
Released by Mack Sennett’s Keystone Studios on February 7th, 1914, Kid Auto Races at Venice marks the first appearance of Charlie Chaplin’s famous Tramp character in more ways than one. It was the first of twenty-six (out’ve thirty-six total) shorts he’d make under Sennett’s auspices as the character, the start of a career that would define what it is to be the international movie star, but the circumstances of its filming also mark it as the first time anyone outside Keystone’s walls saw Chaplin in the ragged clothes, oversized bowler hat, and little toothbrush mustache. See, the film’s name and title cards mark it as an actuality, a proto-documentary/newsreel produced at a local event, in this case a children’s soapbox race held in the Venice neighborhood of Los Angeles to tie-in with the Vanderbilt Cup auto race over in Santa Monica. As such, save Chaplin, director Henry Lehrman as a director trying to capture the event, cameraman Frank D. Williams as the cameraman, and child actor Gordon Griffith, everyone in the thronging crowds alongside those participating in and officiating the races is a member of the public, captured on film as they try to watch the races and instead get an early glimpse at the incoming face of the movie business. Writing this piece as I am with a 2016 Harkins Theater member cup at my side, largely displaying simplified cartoon profiles of contemporary movie characters but also featuring a certain immediately recognizable someone set between Maleficent and Samuel L. Jackson in The Hateful Eight, it’s funny to think of a time when his distinctive face, dress, and walk could be at all unnoticed in a large crowd until he starts making a nuisance of himself.
Kid Auto Races at Venice is not, however, strictly the first film PRODUCED with the Tramp character, nor the first film to feature Charlie Chaplin period. For the former, we look to a Mabel Normand-directed short produced a few days prior to Kid Auto Races but first distributed two days later, on February 9th, Mabel’s Strange Predicament; for the latter, we backtrack to February 2nd of the same year, when Henry Lehrman directs a Chaplin freshly plucked from Fred Karno’s vaudeville company in Making a Living, as a character quite different than the Tramp the world would soon come to know and love. While I normally prefer to keep Registering the Registry articles’ at-length discussions confined to the highlighted film in question, some of my thoughts on Kid Auto Races are rather dependent on thoughts about Chaplin’s first two cinematic appearances, so I think it worth our time this week to take a minor detour into discussing these, so we might best understand the early stages of the movies’ first worldwide icon.
So! In Making a Living, we find Chaplin as a swindler, played in the mode of a classic stage villain, all long swirling cape and top hat and drooping mustache. In terms of how he plays the character, you’d hardly think him at all a kind with the archetype his actor would gradually develop across a storied career, for he is constantly presented as antagonist towards whom the audience should find no likeness to themselves. He remains a troublemaker as the Tramp would become, but he’s a troublemaker who does such things as dismiss a coin proffered in kindness as too meager before greedily snatching for it at the last second, present himself as a man of great status and station to win over a young girl minutes away from a proposal by her actual suitor, undermine another’s rightful work to get some glory on his name and extra cash in his pockets by stealing a photo and story for submission to a local newspaper. In all cases, the man Chaplin jilts and stamps on is played by director Lehrman, and any time the two lock eyes after their first friendly if annoyed encounter, they start into slapping and bashing and leaping all over one another in a comical display of intense theatrical hatred. If one believes Chaplin’s later autobiographies regarding Lehrman as one of those Keystone directors who’d ignore his suggestions and undermine his contributions by cutting his best gags, one can only assume the animosity runs deeper than scripted. Either way, despite Lehrman’s character not exactly registering as the noblest man under the sun — he does, after all, spend more time interviewing the victim of an auto accident for his story than trying to help the man from the fresh wreck off the top of a giant cliff — his frustrations with Chaplin’s unscrupulous liar and braggart positions him as the one we’re supposed to sympathize with and root for across the picture. Course, like the Tramp who would succeed him in this function he never WINS: he doesn’t get his money back from the swindler, his girlfriend’s family doesn’t believe him when he calls out the swindler as a penniless bum, and the paper ultimately sends the auto wreck story to print under the swindler’s name, with Lehrman incapable of anything except once again thrashing with Chaplin in the middle of the street as a streetcar carries them away. This is of course, expected, for it is less funny to see the nice guy come out on top than it is for him to grow increasingly frustrated and eventually sink to his rival’s level.
Still, regarding Chaplin, in spite of the character and actions of the film rendering him the unambiguous comic villain, I find something in his performance indicative of the qualities which would later make him so good at Lehrman’s part. Of everyone in the cast, he’s the most expressive player, flashing insulting faces in the blink of an eye, shifting from shock and scandal to gleam-eyed mischief like lightning, doing everything he can to communicate his frustrations when foiled with every inch of his bounding body. This gives him a little something beneath the obvious false smiles and phony manner of silently talking he works when conning another, a thinking quality not wholly necessary for the antagonist whose costume and title tell the audience everything they need to know about who he is and why he’s doing this, but utterly vital for a downtrodden everyman relatable to all who spy his travels. There’s one brief shot, of Chaplin madly racing down the street, clothes afluster and articles blowing in his face as he flails his limbs all over the place, which I think wouldn’t go amiss in any of the early Tramp shorts once Charlie’s gotten too deep over his head. He is herein a character you’re not really meant to like or root for, yet whose manner inclines you to like him better and remember him longer than the ostensible protagonist. Besides, who among us doesn’t see the appeal in acting the rat bastard and getting away with it long as you can effectively throw hands?
(There is also — perhaps not as revealing in terms of later acting ability and achievement, but interesting to note nevertheless — a short routine outside the newspaper office with Chaplin’s villain composing himself on the streetcorner, wherein he takes note of Chester Conklin as a bum and regards him with feigned aristocratic disgust. Ironically prophetic, in its way.)
Moving forward a few days, we find Mabel’s Strange Predicament, Chaplin’s second film, the one before whose filming he threw together an assortment of mismatched clothes in a hurried attempt to make himself look amusing, and in doing met a funny little man alongside whom he’d learn and grow as an artist over a nearly thirty-year partnership. Course, this WAS a first meeting between man and creation, so while Chaplin’s in the Tramp costume and doing the Tramp’s walk throughout the picture, the part he’s playing is of a disorderly drunkard hanging about a hotel lobby, alternately fighting with and perving on the guests while bribing the bellboy to look the other way. Again he plays an antagonist, coming into conflict with Mabel Normand when she’s trapped outside her room in her evening wear (full body pajamas that reveal no skin or even suggest at her figure — times changin’ sure are fun to look at after the fact!) and he decides to… proposition her, for a kind way of describing the situation. Where Making a Living positions Chaplin as the sole driving force of conflict and shenanigans, however, Strange Predicament has a larger cast of characters complicating the situation: from Mabel’s dog who traps her outside her room in the first place, to Conklin and Alice Davenport as a husband and wife across the hall who complain about the noise she’s making before leaving their door wide open for Mabel to dive for safety, to Harry McCoy as Mabel’s lover who’s none too pleased to find his girl hiding under another man’s bed. Charlie factors into proceedings more prominently than the others, playing a centralized role in introducing us to the setting, and recurring with greater frequency up and down the hotel halls, but when we come to the end, he’s merely one figure amidst the chaos of confused people arguing and fighting over a misunderstanding.
One can readily observe this rapscallion is even further from the fully developed Tramp than his swindling predecessor, despite the recognizable costuming, and Normand’s scenario doesn’t allow him much chance to peek through with a relatable motive or anything. He’s drunken, disorderly, and a creep whose knocks onto his backside are rightly deserved, however humorously Chaplin tumbles. I will still maintain we find another itty-bitty yet vital piece of the eventual Tramp in his manner, though: the importance of persistence for comedy. Bit of an ehhhnnngh thing to say ‘bout a character trying to force himself on an unwilling woman, but where the swindler got his way by virtue of a smooth tongue and gullible listeners, this Chaplin character is rejected and shoved away and denied what he wants, and on a few occasions displays the classic about-face of acting like he’s taken the hint, only to rush back in with yet greater vigor. Applied here, it makes him a fairly dislikable chap who really should learn when to leave well enough alone. Applied in future productions, to a character of some smarter, sweeter disposition, it works in combination with the aspect of the swindler as a thinking character to produce the necessary component of uncertainty about the act. You can tell Chaplin’s got something on his mind, and that he’s looking for some way to divest himself from the foul situation. You usually cannot tell just WHAT he’s thinking, when he’s cottoned on, or whether he will in the first place until he’s backed into a corner and absolutely has to act.
Stage set, let’s have it out in the streets with Chaplin’s big public debut as the Tramp in Kid Auto Races at Venice! We once again find him before Lehrman’s lens in a singularly antagonistic role, although the exact nature of his antagonism has changed. From the titularly-stated purpose of the picture and Lehrman’s never-ending exasperation with the funnily-dressed man constantly ruining his shot, we can tell he’s a bee in the bonnet, a little annoyance whose aggravation is magnified by the fact he simply will not go away, no matter what. If the picture has any weakness of significant note, I’d say it’s in the dedication to this persistent annoyance, for the nature of the scenario and Chaplin’s interruptions doesn’t evolve much across its six minutes. The Tramp interrupts the shot in the same pose many times over, often with the same reactions from Lehrman, and the majority of unique gags come within the first few minutes, leaving the latter portions to play out with Charlie repeatedly returning to lean on his cane with back to the camera, wander across the raceway at inopportune times, and generally put on a smiling face before Lehrman grabs him by the collar and hurls him bodily from the frame. There’s even a decent stopping point around 5:30 when a third party drags Chaplin from the frame as he lifts his hat in salutations, only for a set-up already repeated twice over to play out for a third time.
Allow me, then, a moment to argue the trick of it. If we found a quality much like that of the previous two pictures, in which the Tramp’s actions are discontinuous one-offs, the repetition might not prove so funny, nor so appealing to audiences of its day. In Kid Auto Races, though, I contend the Tramp gains yet another one of his enduring character traits, one which helps the scenario’s limited execution work. As the picture opens, a completely unbiased viewer (unaware of who Charlie Chaplin or the Tramp are, expecting a film with a descriptive title regarding a recent event to simply present said event, not here to experience a comedy at all) might reasonably assume the man who wandered from the crowd at left into center frame is simply a local at first unaware of the camera, whose sudden notice and little bout of waddling preening before its lens was left in as a bit of charming additional color. The subsequent presence of shots without his presence and title cards describing the judge’s stand and the set-up of equipment at key points of interest supports this interpretation. Then you catch sight of him during the third shot, a pan from the judge’s stand across the track and through a line of people, in which the man catches sight of the camera going past, gets up, and paces himself to remain center frame the entire time, posing to the audience before Lehrman rushes in and shoves him away several times, only for the man to walk back and return to his activities. By the time the Tramp is rushing down the raceway with arms windmilling to halt just beyond the camera and purposefully back up to match its eye, wandering in and out of a shot of his own volition to test just how long he can remain before the director rushes him, his motive becomes clear, and it is twofold.
First, the Tramp is annoyed with what he thinks an injustice against him. The camera is right there, he’s not doing anyone any harm by standing before it, the director’s just overreacting by shoving and throwing hard as he can manage for what is a relatively minor offense. If this man can’t keep his temper around some innocent fun at a children’s race, why SHOULDN’T the Tramp deliberately aggravate the stuffed shirt? Pull faces, play dumb, alternately act like he’s spitting in the guy’s eye and has no idea there’s even a camera there. Camera? What camera? I’m just trying to watch the race good sir, how dare you drag me from my preferred watching spot, pose preen pose preen! This gets at the Tramp as someone whose annoying habits and persistence are usually aimed at those whom the character finds abrasive or annoying himself, good qualities for someone always set against larger forces determined to kick him in the pants and deserving a kick right back, but it’s the second aspect of his motive which makes the short notable beyond its first appearance of a legend. The guy just wants to be in the pictures. Not only is this notable for the whole, “Cinema’s great silent star notices the camera and decides he likes it, isn’t this so poetic?” interpretation, you can see it spreading amongst the crowd in the short. Pay attention to the background, you’ll find onlookers with an eye on Chaplin who dare to shoot the camera a quick smile, stand a couple feet back half watching him and obviously internally debating whether they’ve got the nerve to try it themselves, every so often heading out in an imitation of his walk or simply ducking out for a quick second’s spotlight before retreating back into the fold. Given the opportunity and initiative, a great many of those around the Tramp would act exactly as he does, essentially photobombing a serious shoot because there’s something alluring about the presence of a camera, something which draws one to act outrageously for that tiny chance of immortalization. Of course, Chaplin was the expected, planned intruder on the shoot, guaranteed preservation of his actions by playing the part of intruder; those nameless persons who held back reservations and imitated his example got a taste of the real deal.
It speaks to the ability of Chaplin as an artist to understand and appeal to his audience that so early an appearance finds him embodying and encouraging others to follow the Tramp, his flesh-and-blood presence already loaded with the usual routine. “What’s this funny little guy doing? Does he KNOW he’s making a nuisance of himself, or is he just in the wrong place without thinking about it? Hang on, he’s out… he’s back… he’s out… he’s… ohhhhh, I get it! This is all on purpose! Man, he’s funny with how he gets shoved around like a ragdoll and keeps coming back to spite the guy who pushed him. Looks like a lot of fun; wish I could get away with that!” This is the core of the Tramp’s appeal, the baseline thought process which would subsequently carry Chaplin through a career of 82 total pictures, including six further Little Tramp appearances inducted into the National Film Registry at this time of writing. We shan’t follow the development any further today, for although it doubtless charts further bumps and wrinkles and minor developments as Chaplin toned down the outward obnoxiousness to make his character a lightly romantic sad clown citizen of the world of simultaneous personal specificity and wide-open blank interpretation for any audience, our onus for the day only takes us far as Kid Auto Races at Venice. Having found these early steps in developing everyone’s favorite silent comedian, all from roughly the same week-long period, it should prove sufficient to say goodbye for now. After all, we found the chap has quite a knack for doggedly inserting himself before the camera to make sure everyone everywhere sees and knows him, for long as the film remains on the print. He’ll be waiting for us when we cycle back round here again in good time.
And so we keep on keeping on! Make sure to leave any thoughts below, and keep your eyes peeled for the next entry! Next week, a fragment of a film — Ida May Park’s 1918 production for Universal, Bread, extant only as a twenty minute snippet. Quite the thing to come across when discussing film preservation! Insofar as I’m aware, it is only available for purchase via Kino Lorber’s Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers box set, which I possess, but for those of you watching along… I intend to watch another, fully-extant 1918 film of hers, Broadway Love, for additional context, which you can find here. Look forward to it!