A hundred years this month, Mack Sennett's Keystone company introduced Charlie Chaplin to moviegoers. After playing a womanizing dandy who steals a scoop from a reporter (played by actor-filmmaker Henry Lehrman) in his debut, "Making a Living" (released February 2, 1914), Chaplin initially adopted the guise of his Little Tramp character when appearing in the Mabel Normand hotel farce "Mabel's Strange Predicament."
It didn't open until February 9, two days after audiences first saw the Tramp in "Kid Auto Races," directed by Lehrman. A spectator at the Venice Beach Junior Vanderbilt "baby-cart" race, he drives a newsreel director (Lehrman) to violence by constantly stepping in front of his trackside camera. This film was allegedly shot in 45 minutes, possibly during a pause in the production of "Mabel."
Yesterday it was announced that, as part of the centenary celebrations for Chaplin's entry into films, his 1948 novella "Footlights" is to be published by the Italian film archive and restoration house Cineteca di Bologna. The inspiration for his 1952 film "Limelight" and his sole prose work, it was reconstructed from drafts found in Chaplin's private archive, reports The Guardian, by his pre-eminent biographer David Robinson.
The 34,000-word novella, Cecilia Cenciarelli, co-director of the Cineteca's Chaplin project, told Alison Flood, "has shadows. It's the story of a comedian who has lost his public, who was referred to in the press of the time as a 'former comedian,' a 'former successful filmmaker.'" Chaplin wrote it at a time when, Robinson explained, J. Edgar Hoover's campaign against him (for his friendships with Communists and support of Soviet-American unity) was proving effective. On September 19, 1952, the day after Chaplin sailed for England, his re-entry permit was revoked. He never returned, settling in Switzerland.
A century ago, Chaplin was starting to develop the persona of the romantic social outcast who would make him the most popular film star in the world. "Kid Auto Races" showed that the Tramp — the least repressible of human pests — could pull off being insouciant and obnoxious simultaneously.
The one-reeler is not only hilarious but turned out to be a "meta-movie." Chaplin appears to be breaking the fourth wall when he poses in front of the trackside camera, but it's simply that the film's point of view is that of the on-screen cameraman, who is sometimes filmed filming.
When the Tramp impedes his view one time too often, however, Lehrman irritably looks from their camera's position to the "Kid Auto Races" camera. He seems not only to have broken the fourth wall but momentarily broken character. Back "in the moment," he kicks the Tramp to the ground, not that that stops his interference.
Lehrman didn't like Chaplin. Ultimately, it's unclear whether he was entering into the spirit of the thing or genuinely flummoxed by the English upstart. It could be that working with Chaplin had rattled him.
NPR's Bob Mondello offers further insights on the first Chaplin films with this commentary-with-clips. "Kid Auto Races" is the familiar title of the Tramp's baptismal offering, though its first frame, featuring Keystone's logo, names it "Kid's Auto Race"; the first title card reads: "Kid Auto Races at Venice, California." Which 24-year-old-kid won the day is not in doubt.
"Footlights" will be sold by Amazon.com and made available at cinetecadibologna.it.